In a Word: Cornucopia: A Thanksgiving Symbol that Predates America

Though today it’s associated with the most American of holidays, the cornucopia dates back to ancient times.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

The cornucopia has long been a symbol of the Thanksgiving season — a large (often wicker) horn overflowing with fruits and vegetables and grains. It’s also known as the horn of plenty, and for good reason. The word cornucopia comes from the Latin cornu “horn” (also the source of unicorn) and copiae “abundance.” The phrase “horn of plenty,” is a literal translation of the elements of cornucopia.

Though the horn of plenty is today a symbol of Thanksgiving, the first cornucopia comes from ancient Greek mythology, all the way back to the childhood of Zeus, King of the Gods. If you think back to your mythological original stories, you might remember that Zeus’s birth and early childhood were not exactly pleasant. Zeus’s father, the Titan Cronus, had heard a prophecy that he would be usurped by one of his children. So whenever his wife Rhea gave birth, the power-hungry Cronus immediately ate the child. He ate five children in all, swallowing them up soon after they were born.

After the fifth child, Rhea showed some maternal attributes and decided to protect the next one. When their last child, Zeus, was born, Rhea rescued him by replacing the child with a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which Cronus gulped down without a second thought. In the meantime, the real baby Zeus was secreted off to a cave on the isle of Crete.

The tales of Zeus’s upbringing on Crete are about as consistent as Spiderman origin stories. But like Spiderman origin stories, though the details differ, the main themes persist throughout. One of those consistent themes is the existence of a goat. It might have been a magical goat named Amalthea, or Amalthea might have been a nymph or a daughter of the Cretan king Melisseus who owned a goat. At any rate, it was that goat’s milk that nourished the infant Zeus.

At some point in Zeus’s young life, the goat lost a horn — either it fell off, or Zeus accidentally or intentionally tore it off. And then, one of two things happened: Either the nymph Amalthea filled the horn with herbs and fruits to feed Zeus, or Zeus endowed the horn with the ability to provide its possessor with whatever they wished. The horn was called, in Greek, keras amaltheias “The Horn of Amalthea,” and in Latin, cornu copiae — what became the modern cornucopia. That cornucopia, a symbol of the abundance, is a common theme in ancient Greek art, and it makes an appearance in other mythological stories.

After the goat died, Zeus used its hide to create the aegis, either an impenetrable shield or armor that was later used by Athena. Zeus, though, used the aegis to defeat Cronus and the other Titans and rescue his five siblings from his father’s stomach.

That’s right: They were there the whole time in his stomach. Remember that after you’ve gorged yourself on Thanksgiving dinner: No matter how full you feel, it couldn’t possibly be worse than having five grown deities and a baby-sized stone lodged in your gut.

Featured image: Shutterstock.com

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